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SEIU, upstart union in super-heated battle; 44,000 members at stake

NORTH BAY – Kaiser Permanente  employees throughout Northern California begin voting today in a costly, high-stakes election that will likely determine the influence of two quarreling unions, each seeking to represent nearly 44,000 workers.

In one of the largest union votes to take place in decades, Kaiser employees will choose to either remain with the powerful Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, or join its rival offshoot, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, with both influence and an estimated $40 million in annual dues collected at stake.

From today through Oct. 4, a mail-in vote will be conducted that could significantly alter California’s health care landscape. A vote count will begin Oct. 6. Employees could also vote for no union at all.

The two unions – in a unique battle that pits labor against labor rather than labor against employer – have clashed mightily on everything from when a vote could take place to legalities involving the existing contract that SEIU negotiated with Kaiser.

Now, as voting begins, the contentious battle has reached new heights, with NUHW proponents saying their rival puts organizational power over individual workers while SEIU advocates claim NUHW and its supporters ultimately undermine organized labor and jeopardize workers’ collective bargaining power and the existing contract.

Thousands of medical assistants, respiratory therapists, medical records clerks and housekeepers across the North Bay will take part in the vote.

In Santa Rosa, about 1,250 employees will be included; in San Rafael, about 800; in Napa, about 120; in Fairfield, about 113; in Vacaville, about 550; and in Vallejo about 1,900.

“In their 19 months of existence, [NUHW officials] have not negotiated a new contract and have done virtually nothing for the workers who have joined them,” said SEIU spokesman Steve Trossman, referring to elections at Kaiser facilities in Southern California in which NUHW won convincingly.

That vote and the subsequent negotiations with Kaiser have since become a major point of contention between the two unions and Kaiser.

A 9 percent pay raise over three years, which began in April, was negotiated by SEIU. Mr. Trossman said the 2,300 employees in Southern California who switched to NUHW aren’t receiving the benefits of the new contract, which he said exemplifies the level of power offered by each union.

NUHW, meanwhile, contests that notion, arguing that federal law stipulates the SEIU contract should remain in place regardless of the outcome of the elections.

“The federal government has already ruled in past elections and similar elections that your terms and conditions stay the same,” said Billy Occhipinti, chief of material services at Kaiser Santa Rosa and a former shop steward with SEIU until about three years ago who now supports NUHW. He and NUHW officials pointed to a statement from the National Labor Relations General Counsel that reads:

“In general, an employer is required to maintain existing contract terms when a new union is selected to represent bargaining unit employees.”

The NLRB issued a complaint alleging that Kaiser violated the National Labor Relations Act “by refusing to grant a wage increase that had been scheduled to go into effect April 1, 2010.”

A hearing before an Administrative Law Judge has been set for October to determine whether that was the case.

It’s precisely that point which SEIU proponents point to, countering that Kaiser will strongly defend itself and that, even if NUHW wins, it won’t receive the existing contract benefits but will instead be forced to negotiate an entirely new benefits and wages package.

“I’m very happy with the new contract, and I want to stick with my union and the contract,” said Janet Wooten, a unit assistant in labor and delivery at Kaiser Santa Rosa. “Quite frankly, I don’t want to fight for every little raise when it’s already guaranteed to us in the existing contract.”

Meanwhile, 48 former SEIU-UHW shop stewards abruptly resigned their posts and threw their support behind NUHW at Kasier Santa Rosa.

Sadie Crabtree, an NUHW spokeswoman, said the Santa Rosa shuffle was the largest in the state, but added that numerous stewards were removed by SEIU and now support NUHW.

Mr. Occhipinti and NUHW officials have also disputed the value of the contract negotiated by SEIU, noting that former SEIU-UHW members are now the leaders of NUHW and have years of experience negotiating solid contracts. Mr. Occhipinti pointed to the layoffs endured by workers at Kaiser in 2009, saying SIEU did nothing to protect jobs that were eliminated. He also said SEIU-UHW, which was taken over in a controversial trusteeship by the national SEIU union, in general isn’t inclusive enough.

“SEIU has a very long track record of no member input, whereas NUHW currently and in the past has a track record of member input and voting power, and that’s not what we’re experiencing today," Mr. Occhipinti said.

For its part, SEIU said it has negotiated the best possible contract in a dire economy, and NUHW would set workers back to square one.

“While they’re fighting for a 2 percent increase, our members have had it since April,” said Mr. Trossman, the SEIU spokesman, referring to how the elections have turned out in Southern California. “It’s a really good deal in a terrible economy.”

Given the number of workers involved in the elections, the stakes are huge, said John Logan, director and professor of labor studies at San Francisco State University.

“The size of election is enormously important,” he said. “It’s also important because it’s in health care, and health care has been one of the fastest-growing areas of the economy and has been a fairly fertile ground for unions.”